Navajo Sandpaintings, also called dry paintings, are called "places
where the gods come and go" in the Navajo language. They
are used in curing ceremonies in which the gods' help is requested
for harvests and healing.
The figures in sand paintings are symbolic representations of a story in Navajo mythology. They depict objects like the sacred mountains where the gods live, or legendary visions, or they illustrate dances or chants performed in rituals.
Sandpaintings are but one rite in a ceremonial. From the distinct set of paintings that belong to a specific chant, the chanter selects those that will best heal the patient, never using the entire repertoire of paintings on a single occasion.
In the two-night form of a chant, one sandpainting is made, while the last four days of a nine-night ceremonial would have sandpaintings.
After its sanctification, the patient sits on the painting while the chanter performs a ritual to enhance the absorption of its healing power. Immediately afterward, the remains of the painting are taken outside to an area north of the hogan, where they are returned to the earth.
According to Navajo belief, a sandpainting heals because the ritual image attracts and exalts the Holy People; serves as a pathway for the mutual exchange of illness and the healing power of the Holy People; identifies the patient with the Holy People it depicts; and creates a ritual reality in which the patient and the supernatural dramatically interact, reestablishing the patient's correct relationship with the world of the Holy People ( GriffinPierce 1992:43).
For the Navajo, the sandpainting is a dynamic, living, sacred entity that enables the patient to transform his or her mental and physical state by focusing on the powerful mythic symbols that re-create the chantway odyssey of the storys protagonist, causing those events to live again in the present.
The performative power of sandpainting creation and ritual use reestablish the proper, orderly placement of the forces of life, thus restoring correct relations between the patient and those forces upon which the patient's spiritual and physical health depend. The sandpainting works its healing power by reestablishing the patient's sense of connectedness to all of life ( Griffin-Pierce 1991:66).
THE GREAT PICTURES OF DSILYÍDJE QAÇÀL. (Sandpaintings)
A description of the four great pictures drawn in "The Mountain Chant" ceremonies has been deferred until all might be described together. Their relations to one another rendered this the most desirable course to pursue. The preparation of the ground and of the colors, the application of the sacred pollen, and some other matters have been already considered.
First Picture. The picture of the first day (Plate XV) is said to represent the visit of Dsilyi‘ Neyáni to the home of the snakes at Qo¢estsò.
In the center of the picture was a circular concavity, about six inches in diameter, intended to represent water, presumably the house of water mentioned in the myth. In all the other pictures where water was represented a small bowl was actually sunk in the ground and filled with water, which water was afterwards sprinkled with powdered charcoal to give the impression of a flat, dry surface.
Why the bowl of water was omitted in this picture I do not know, but a medicine man of a different fraternity from that of the one who drew the picture informed me that with men of his school the bowl filled with water was used in the snake picture as well as in the others.
Closely surrounding this central depression are four parallelograms about four inches by ten inches in the original pictures. The half nearer the center is red; the outer half is blue; they are bordered with narrow lines of white. The same figures are repeated in other paintings.
The Second Picture is said to be a representation of the painting, which the prophet saw in the home of the bears in the Carrizo Mountains (paragraph 40). In the center of this figure is the bowl of water covered with black powder, to which I referred before. The edge of the bowl is adorned with sunbeams, and external to it are the four ca‘bitlol, or sunbeam rafts, on which seem to stand four gods, or yays.
The Third Picture commemorates the visit of Dsilyi‘ Neyáni to Çaçò‘-behogan, or “Lodge of Dew” (paragraph 56). To indicate the great height of the Bitsès-ninéz the figures are twice the length of any in the other pictures, except the rainbows, and each is clothed in four garments, one above the other, for no one garment, they say, can be made long enough to cover such giant forms.
Their heads all point to the east, instead of pointing in different directions, as in the other pictures. The Navajo relate, as already told (paragraph 56), that this is in obedience to a divine mandate; but probably there is a more practical reason, which is this: if they had the cruciform arrangement there would not be room on, the floor of the lodge for the figures and at the same time for the shaman, assistants, and spectators.
Economy of space is essential; but, although drawn nearly parallel to one another, the proper order of the cardinal points is not lost sight of. The form immediately north of the center of the picture is done first, in white, and represents the east. That immediately next to it on the south comes second in order, is painted in blue, and represents the south.
The one next below that is in yellow, and depicts the goddess who stood in the west of the House of Dew-Drops. The figure in the extreme north is drawn last of all, in black, and belongs to the north. As I have stated before, these bodies are first made naked and afterwards clothed.
The exposed chests, arms, and thighs display the colors of which the entire bodies were originally composed. The glòï (weasel, Putorius) is sacred to these goddesses. Two of these creatures are shown in the east, guarding the entrance to the lodge.
The Fourth Picture represents the kátso-yisçàn, or great plumed arrows. These arrows are the especial great mystery, the potent healing charm of this dance. The picture is supposed to be a fac simile of a representation of these weapons, shown to the prophet when he visited the abode of the Tsilkè-¢igini, or young men gods, where he first saw the arrows .
There are eight arrows. Four are in the center, lying parallel to one another—two pointing east and two others, alternate, pointing west. The picture is bordered by the other four, which have the same relative positions and directions as the bounding serpents in the first picture. The shafts are all of the same white tint, no attention being paid to the colors of the cardinal points; yet in drawing and erasing the picture the cardinal points are duly honored.
Among the central arrows, the second from the top, or north margin of the design, is that of the east; it is drawn and erased first. The next below it is the arrow of the south; the third is that of the west. The one on top belongs to the north; it is drawn and erased last.
The heads are painted red to represent the red stone points used; the fringed margins show the irregularities of their edges. The plumes at the butt are indicated, as are also the strings by which the plumes are tied on and the notches to receive the bowstring.